Latino Voices

Fremont High School Alumni In South Los Angeles Organize In Response To Miramonte Sex-Abuse Scandal

In a lounge bar and restaurant south of Downtown Los Angeles, about fifty people met on a Saturday night and watched comedian and fellow-alum Adrian "Adee" McCovy Sr. host a comedy show. They gathered there to support the John C. Fremont High School Alumni Foundation (FHSAF) and raise funds for their alma mater. All the proceeds from this and future events, they announced, would pay for scholarships for college-bound seniors.

Because for many students at Fremont High, graduating is no small feat.

According to Department of Education data, while statewide graduation rates for the the 2009-10 academic year was 78.59%, Fremont's class saw a meager 54.3% .

Marred by poverty and impoverished neighborhoods, this predominantly brown and black campus -- 90.6% Hispanic and 8.9% Black, according to 2009-10 LAUSD statistics -- underwent "reconstitution" only two years ago. Spearheaded by then Superintendent Ramon Cortines, the school was the first in LAUSD history to be figuratively demolished and built from scratch.

All the teachers were let go in an effort to reanimate the low-performing school, without which, Cortines wrote in a letter to LAUSD board members, "continuing the status quo only provides a disservice to our students."

This month, the lurid sex abuse scandal at Miramonte Elementary School has devastated the surrounding communities of South Los Angeles. Many of the Fremont students attended K-5 classes at Miramonte.

The scandal was only one of several that have emerged in the past few weeks, including the recent arrest of a Fremont High teacher’s aide on charges of lewd acts against a minor.

"It hurts to the core," said Izabel Mendoza Bautista, a Fremont High Alumni Foundation (FHSAF) board member who grew up in the area.

In the wake of the scandal -- that included accusations of an LAUSD cover-up, push back over LAUSD's decision to replace Miramonte Elementary with all new staff, and the anger and confusion of parents and students -- former students are doing their part to empower the area’s youth.

Blanca Dilleda, a graduate of both Miramonte and Fremont, travelled from Pasadena to attend events for the newly-formed foundation because "it is something our community needs more of; we need more positive involvement and to let our youth know now that we care about them."

Luis Cabrales, the FHSAF Board Chair, greeted guests at the entrance and spoke in earnest about the responsibility he felt alumni like himself have to current students. As the Deputy Director of Campaigns at the Coalition for Clean Air, he was awarded a Champions of Change award by President Obama for his work as an environmental advocate last year.

He also has no qualms about asking former classmates for money. "After this event we're gonna ask people who didn't come, 'Hey, if you went to Fremont, you have a moral responsibility.'"

The foundation began last fall as a conversation between Cabrales and former Fremont High classmate Neyda Vanegas over their 20th year high school reunion.

During the preparation for the reunion, Vanegas volunteered to visit the campus to take photographs, and spoke to students. She says it was an emotional experience to be back.

"It brought back the memories of living in South L.A. and the struggles we all faced. A lot of our young people, not just in Fremont, feel like they are a forgotten community."

Cabrales says he understands the challenges that come with inner-city life, and how important a little encouragement plays in the lives of youth.

He described how his immigration status severely limited his financial aid resources, how he worked low-paying jobs to put himself through college, and how he managed to graduate as an undocumented college student even before California passed AB-540, the state bill that allows some undocumented students pay in-state tuition.

A "Dreamer" before a term for it existed, he was inspired to move forward with his education after one organization answered his requests for scholarship money: Lowrider Magazine. "It was unexpected," he laughs, "but I had never felt that way before. It was the first time I received positive feedback like that. It was great."

"Hopefully, the foundation will offer the same kind of support, that says, "'Hey, you can do it. Whatever it is you wanna do,'" says Martha Zendejas, a Fremont alumnus. "Encouragement can open new doors to anything, so don’t minimize it."

A graduate of both Fremont and Miramonte, Zendejas has established her career as a therapist and youth counselor in the community where she grew up. Recalling her high school years, she says: "As far as my class, there wasn't a lot of expectations. I didn't feel challenged a lot by teachers."

Eventually, the foundation plans to become a non-profit organization and generate more resources.

"I think it's important for our youth to know that they are not forgotten," said Vanegas.

In spite of the daunting barriers many of the area’s youth face, FHSAF has made a commitment to become a pillar among several non-profits in the area working to address a myriad of issues. But certainly for all persons involved, it's a personal mission.

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